Text: Rick Kiewiet
Images: SRO Media
HRT took an undisputed victory in the dark at the first GT World Challenge Sprint Cup race at Magny Cours. Luca Stolz had already built a comfortable lead in the first stint that vanished due to a Safety Car phase, but Maro Engel picked up where his teammate left off right after the stops. The show was stolen mostly by the Audi pack battling for 3rd behind, who didn't gave each other an inch in their efforts to become "best Audi". Silver Cup honors went to Oscar Tunjo and Juuso Pukkala in the Toksport Mercedes, while Jonathan Hui and Ferrari all-rounder Giancarlo Fisichella won the Pro-Am Class.
Luca Stolz scored the maiden Pole Position for the newly formed Haupt Racing Team. In his #4 Mercedes AMG he already lead the charts halfway through the qualifying session, when he was suddenly topped by Steven Palette in the Silver Cup #26 Sainteloc Audi. In the remainder of the session, Stolz managed an even quicker lap to secure pole, sat on the heels by Grenier in the #14 Emil Frey Lamborghini. Palette still had an excellent result, as he started the race from row 2. Beside him on p4 started Tommaso Mosca in the #55 Attempto Audi. Championship leaders Weerts and Vanthoor started from p6, runner-ups Haase and Rougier commenced from p9. Chris Froggat in the #93 Sky Tempesta Ferrari took pole in the Pro-Am class (17th overall).
Leading the pack up to the Adelaide hairpin after the start was Luca Stolz. The German led ahead of the Lamborghini of Grenier. Steven Palette, the Silver Cup pole sitter in the #26 Sainteloc Audi came into the pits at the end of the formation lap with a puncture and so gave the class lead to Ezequiel Perez Companc in the #90 MadPanda Mercedes.
The tight Adelaide hairpin claimed several victims in lap 1. The #15 Tech 1 Lexus of Aurélien Panis, in its homerace, was tapped into a spin by Arthur Rougier in the #25 Sainteloc Audi, but continued its way on p20. Mick Wishofer in the #6 Toksport Mercedes and Giacomo Altoe in #163 Lambo suffered more substantial damage. Wishofer first pushed Altoe into a spin after which he also drove into the back of the Huracan several meters further. Both found their Waterloo a couple of turns later.
In the early stages, Stolz and Grenier created a small gap to the cars behind. Eight tenths were between them, three seconds separated them from Perez Companc, Mosca and Weerts, who were close together in the battle for p3. Close behind, Panciatici (#107 Bentley), Pla (#89 Mercedes) and Rougier (#25 Audi) fought for p6. Schöll (#66 Audi) and Boguslavskiy (#88 Mercedes) both had cut through the field and were already on p9 and p10, coming from 15th and 16th on the grid.
Right after Rougier and Schöll got past Jim Pla, Weerts took over Mosca and put pressure on Perez Companc. The Argentinian was forced into an error in turn 1, went wide over the gravel, and dropped to p9. Half a lap later, Rougier also got past Panciatici's Bentley. The chase towards Stolz and Grenier was now led by three Audi's from three different teams: Weerts (WRT), Mosca (Attempto) and Rougier (Sainteloc). The gap they faced was already almost 9 seconds.
18 minutes into the race the Safety Car was called out on track after a spin from Louis Machiels in the #52 AF Corse Ferrari. He went wide in turn 1, came back on the tarmac and lost control, got hit by the #26 Sainteloc Audi and stranded in the gravel outside turn 2. When the Safety Car came in, the field, now closely back together again, stormed towards the pit stop window which was only 4 minutes away.
However, Stolz, and to lesser extent Grenier, stoically continued what they did before and managed to open up another small gap to their pursuers. Weerts in 3rd had to go a bit defensive against Mosca behind. Panciatici, who got ahead of Rougier again, viciously defended p5 but had to give way to both the Frenchman and Schöll, after which four Audi's now chased the leading Mercedes and Lamborghini. To make matters even worse for Panciatici, right after he was passed by Rougier and Schöll he spun in the chicane right before start finish. He dropped to p14.
Grenier, Weerts, Rougier and Schöll brought their cars in immediately when the pit window opened to hand the wheel over to their teammates Siedler, Vanthoor, Haase and Vervisch. Stolz and Mosca waited a while longer.
After the stops, the #4 HRT Mercedes now in the hands of Maro Engel still led the race. Siedler, in the #14 Emil Frey Lamborghini, followed at a respectable distance of about 8 seconds with the Audi's of Dries Vanthoor (#32 WRT), Chris Haase (#25 Sainteloc), Frederik Vervisch (#66 Attempto), Mattia Drudi (#55 Attempto) and Kelvin van der Linde (#31 WRT) close on his tail. Raffaele Marciello brought the #88 AKKA ASP Mercedes back into the top-10 in p8. Hamza Owega was in p9 in the #33 WRT Audi, leading the Silver Cup just ahead of Juuso Puhakka in the #2 Toksport Mercedes. The order changed swiftly as Puhakka overtook the Audi a minute later. Giancarlo Fisichella led the Pro-Am class in the #92 Sky Tempesta Ferrari.
With 15 minutes to go, the Audi 5-pack still hadn't found a way past Norbert Siedler's Lamborghini. They even gave him some space as the battle for "Best Audi" intensified. Drudi and van der Linde switched positions a couple of times, until van der Linde put the Italian behind him indefinitely.
With three minutes to go, Vervisch, who'd been on Haase's tail since the pit stops, finally made his move in the Adelaide hairpin. Van der Linde behind, saw his chance and tried to squeeze his way passed as well. In the track-part after the hairpin, Haase and Van der Linde went doorbanging through the Nürburgring chicane, after which Haase finally managed to fend off the South African as the latter shortly went off track. This gave Drudi the chance to take back p6 from Van der Linde. Half a lap later though, van der Linde took back the position from Drudi yet again.
In his last effort to pass Siedler, Vanthoor almost lost his third position to Fred Vervisch, but the order changed no more. Engel took HRT's maiden win in the #4 Mercedes. Siedler secured 2nd place ahead of Vanthoor, Vervisch, Haase, Van der Linde and Drudi. Marciello managed to hold on to 8th after problems with the bodywork of his car. Puhakka finished first in the Silver Cup ahead of Owega. Fisichella took the victory in the Pro-Am class.
Weerts and Vanthoor still lead the championship ahead of Haase and Rougier. Stolz and Engel move up to third.
Race 2 is held Sunday at 12.45 BST.
Re-watch the race: